Monday, May 07, 2007

Thoughts on "Gananoque in the Gilded Age"

The exhibit, Gananoque in the Gilded Age, is now up at the Arthur Child Heritage Museum, at 125 Water St. in Gananoque. Also on display this summer is a very nice exhibit from the Clayton Antique Boat Museum which showcases a selection of Canadian made canoes from the early 20th century.

One of the most exciting parts of the Gananoque Museum Collections Project was exhibition, and it was actually a very difficult task to choose what to display. I felt it was important to show off both the collections’ potential and to simply display some of the items hidden away for so long. I could have chosen to exhibit Gananoque’s history in the World Wars or any aspect of military history that touched on our little town; I could have looked at schools, the electric company, angling and hunting, agriculture, sports and leisure from any period; there were enough artefacts to do a very thorough history of photography, woodworking, shoemaking or local native peoples; I could have high-lighted different industries and their products. By far the most interesting set of artefacts I came across were the photographs from the late 1800s – of factories, mansions, workers and streetscapes – and this is what I decided to build the exhibit around, and it didn’t take much to locate enough physical artefacts to fill five display cases. In fact, there were too many, and it was a tough chore to pare them down.

It's one thing to display the artefacts and photographs and let them tell their own story, but to really understand them one must have a sense of their historical context. What was going when someone made this Cowan and Britton lock? Who used this wrench or drank from this cup, and why should I care? In the attempt to flesh out a little history, you have to not only think about how you’re going make something concise yet complete, honest yet attractive; you also have to think about what perspective you will take. I chose to try and articulate the disparity between rich and poor, worker and owner during this period. This division in society was quite stark, and was something the people noticed and remarked upon themselves. So now, showing off an antique clock owned by the Britton family takes on two levels - showcasing an interesting, ornate clock on the one hand, and highlighting the wealth of one segment of the society.
Last year, when I was still working on my MA at Western, there was an ongoing debate regarding nostalgia and whether or not we as historians had any business stoking that emotion. Nostalgia shouldn't play a role in the study of history, but it often comes into play with exhibits and popular social memory. Most of the time nostalgia is harmless. But does nostalgia not have the potential to breed resentment at the present world and hamper the forward movement and change that is necessary for healthy growth – of a person or a town? It’s a common thing for people to be nostalgic and to long for simpler times when things seemed better, safer, and more secure. Nostalgia was once considered a medical condition for which doctors had a variety of remedies, but it is simply part of the human condition. Who in their later years has not thought back with longing to a time when they were young? Comparing our own times to the past is nearly unavoidable. I have heard people (usually while their computer is crashing or their cellphone is dying) run on about how great it must have been to live in the simpler times of horse and buggy. It’s easy to forget, however, that even though life certainly moved a bit slower, one also had to contend with the anguish of now easily treated infections running out of control, or the horror of smallpox or typhoid fever decimating the population of a neighbourhood. I, for one, believe that the era we live in now, for all its imperfections, is far preferable to any in the past. As the first line of the exhibit reads “few ages are golden, yet time has a way of obscuring the problems of the past, leaving an idyllic memory that bears little resemblance to history.”

As a class, the Public History MAs at Western in 05/06 worked on a similar subject with Museum London: the industrial zone known as the “Old East”. A reviewer described the exhibit, with no ill-meaning, as “nostalgia rich.” It was intended to be a celebration of the industries that thrived in London in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the most interesting aspects of the story, however, were not told, (this likely having to do with the fact that museums sometimes need to be family oriented). When compiling a dossier for a local industry, it was clear to me that the rosy picture the museum sought was not the whole story. Strikes, crime, poverty, brothels, racial strife – these were the realities in the town. Of course, it does no good to dwell on or to sensationalize these stories, but this was an area that was an industrial and railway hub, with no standing police force and no fire brigade – crime and danger were going to be factors of everyday life in London East. To ignore these stories is likely as bad as solely dwelling on them.

Finding that balance between being accurate and truthful without being overly dour, and highlighting the impressive aspects without being celebratory or nostalgic, were the main problems I found as I sat down to begin an exhibit on Gananoque’s industrial past. Gananoque’s manufacturing base has severely contracted over the last twenty years, and just over the last two years Gananoque lost two factories, Mahle and the auto-parts maker Collins and Aikman, and with them scores of jobs. With only four factories left in town (although between them they employ almost 600 people) the one thing I didn’t want to get caught in was making a wistful and nostalgic portrait of the good ol’ days when everyone had jobs and the world was a much happier place – because no such time existed. Even with 72 factories or small-shop enterprises buzzing away in town in the 1880s and 90s, life was not easy, money was not plentiful, and the workers then certainly did not feel they were living in a golden age.

When reading through George De Zwaan’s 1987 PhD thesis about Gananoque’s industrial history, the conflict between the factory owners and the local workers organized under the Knights of Labour struck me as the most interesting episode of the period. It was an event that really highlighted the growing discontent amongst people with the way things were and connected Gananoque with a wider national, or more exactly, North American story. While there are no artefacts from the Knights of Labour in the collections, the local newspaper recorded the events in letters to the editor which provide a voice for the workers of the period in the displays. I tried to make an exhibit that portrays the period without being nostalgic, that lets the visitor learn and experience a period as it was, instead of something idealized. If it stirs nostalgia in some, that’s fine, but it is not meant to. I wanted to show the growth of the town from the 1860s through to the 1890s, but I also wanted to highlight how far we’ve come and how much there is still left to do. Spending our time lamenting the passing of time and the inevitable consequences of change gets us nowhere. Gananoque has loads of potential for future growth and prosperity, and while we should remember the past and learn from it, we shouldn’t live in it.

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